How do you Choose Public Policy? Sandy Hook, Gun Control, and Pragmatism

What drives your convictions on public policy? Is it your commitment to certain ideologies? Or to certain goals?

Last month, our nation reminded us how incredibly divided we are, and that division continues to manifest in the fiscal cliff debates and now, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, with regards to gun control. Disagreement and dialogue is healthy for our country, but it’s not healthy if no one ever changes their position. If all our debates do is fire up supporters, then we’ve exchanged rhetoric for cheerleading.

Many times we are more committed to our ideologies than to the outcomes we claim to be pursuing, and I believe this prevents us from making wise and loving public policy decisions. We are so committed to being against all tax increases — or in favor of taxing the rich — that the results of these policies don’t really matter. Or take President Obama’s speech at the Sandy Hook vigil. In it he rightly calls on us to change in order to try to prevent tragedies like this from happening again:

We can’t tolerate this anymore… These tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and it is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

Although Obama gave no specifics about what laws or changes should be made, he was criticized by many on the right for “politicizing” the tragedy. Are we so opposed to the president that we cannot even agree that we ought to take action? Perhaps we could check our priorities if we asked ourselves some difficult questions:

  • Am I committed to pro-life candidates or candidates who will reduce the number of abortions performed in our country?
  • If the data showed that strict gun laws would prevent massacres like Sandy Hook, would you support them?
  • If the data showed that loose gun laws would prevent massacres like Sandy Hook, would you support them?
  • If proper stimulus spending could save the economy, would I support it?
  • If tax cuts on the wealthy would hurt the economy, would I be against them?

Everyone throws around statistics and studies when arguing about public policy to prove that their position is the best one, but my concern is that often the content of those studies really don’t matter. I worry that we don’t support policies based on how they will bless us and our neighbors, but rather, on how they fit with our prior political commitments.

So, try a thought experiment. What if the opposition’s policy would be better for the economy, or result in fewer abortions, or protect us against gun violence? Would you change your position? If not, it may reveal something about what is truly important to you.

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